The Googly Goose talking phone came out in the early eighties, a push button toy that 'dialed ' your favorite Googly Goose characters and piped their recorded voices through a tinny corded handset. Consumer complaints around that era said that the device was prohibitively expensive and the thin wire often broke so you could no longer hear the audio, but dad was obsessed. He took it everywhere when he was a kid. He swears that, unlike other talking phones of that era, it said something different every time.
Most people know about Googly Goose, so I won't bore you with the details. You can always Google Googly Goose if you want to know more, but in the off chance you haven't been indoctrinated, Mr. Googly is Canadian, he has twenty five friends, one for each letter of the alphabet, and he's the subject of a successful children's book and TV franchise.
Although the phone featured five large buttons for speed dialing googly and his closest friends, the toy also came with a 'directory' , a booklet of four digit numbers that allowed you to dial the whole alphabet, plus all the places everyone worked, city hall, the fire station, grocery store, appliance repair service...the funeral home seemed...a little dark, but it played Chopin's Funeral March, and it was funny. Kids loved it. Anyways, a lot was packed in there...including realistic disconnect messages. I think computer chips were involved somehow.
My dad gave me this thing for my tenth birthday, when I was really wanting a Nintendo switch with Pokemon.
Our family was not well to do, by any stretch of the imagination. Dad worked in a printing factory, which got us some money, but mom was a waitress. We lived in the shoddy old house that grandad built.
`A real fixer upper.' Should have been condemned. Not a true ninety degree angle in the whole building. The bathroom had a hole in the floor, one through which you could see the person using the toilet from the dining room below. The basement was just a dirt crawl space with a couple heaters and concrete walls. The place was always dusty, the living room smelled strongly of the cheap pinewood dad used to remodel.
Dad had made attempts at salvaging the house, but by and large just covered the defects with his ugly cartoon pictures and Googly Goose facade...including a life size replica of the giant gray-black bird puppet used on the show. To this day I have nightmares about the possum that got in through a hole behind the puppet and made him appear to move unassisted. Mom tolerated it because she was into cartoons about furry animals.
In October, right before my birthday, tips were down, and so was dad's web fed sheet press. Empty beer cans began to multiply. Still, they made an attempt.
Unemployment had been unkind to dad. He neglected his personal appearance, rumpled clothing, walked around half shaven, hair flying every which way. Mom looked aged, weary, her stomach bulging a little more than usual due to depression eating, her cartoon cat shirt stretched tight around the waist.
We gathered at the table below the bathroom with my cake. Mom had made it herself, tried to do icing letters, but it turned out largely unreadable. I didn't have any friends over because I'm a shy kid. Dad said he was just like me when I was his age. In private he once told me that I too could grow up to be a loser using a dating site and marrying a fat cow - the good looking girls get picked off pretty quickly on those sites, he said. If you aren't photogenic, well...
My gifts came in old 9th birthday Googly Goose wrapping paper. My folks sang happy birthday. Depressing to have just them singing, but oh well. The cake was okay, tasted like chocolate wax in parts.
I tore open the wrapping paper, hoping it wouldn't be used again.
Instead of Pokemon, I got a dusty plastic toy and a book collection. The DVD box set was the only thing new out of the whole assortment.
Dad, noting my disappointed look, told me, "It was brand new when my dad got it for me on my birthday. It still works as good as the first day he bought it. Take care of it, and you'll be giving it to your children." Then, giving mom a nervous glance, he leaned close, his disheveled, post layoff appearance looking even more haunted. His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "They talk back to you! I've had conversations!"
He picked up his dog eared copy of Andy Anteater's Bad Day (Googly's friend), flipping to an illustration of Andy moping in the rain on a street corner. A mad gleam appeared in dad's eyes as his thick index finger stabbed the image of a payphone in the far background. "There! Do you see that? 2377! I called it one night, and Osma Owl appeared there! Right in this very picture! Phone receiver in her feathered hands!"
I stared at my dad, wondering if this were some sort of sick joke, but the man looked sincere. I could only conclude that the cheese had slipped from his cracker.
He held up the DVD's. "Now...I don't know if this will work...it's not like live broadcast TV, but if it works like the books do, there's a chance!"
I backed away, my eyes big as dinner plates. "A chance of what?"
"Of them talking back to you, of course!" he hissed. "Every time you see them with a phone, there's a four digit number on it! It's a clue!"
"What's a clue?" mom asked, looking concerned. She'd overheard part of the conversation, I guess. Honestly, to this day I'm puzzled as to how the two of them got together.
"Nothing, honey," my dad blurted. "Just encouraging my son to use his imagination."
No, dad, I thought. You're trying to get me to go off the deep end with you.
Mom actually gave me a Nintendo Switch, which included, ironically enough, Googly Goose's Fowl Adventure. I guess Pokemon wouldn't fit in the budget. I took it upstairs to my room to play.
My bedroom had a closet with no door, a bed that was just a mattress, only a box spring, my TV propped up on a chipped particle board dresser. The plaster ceiling and walls were cracking. I had a small, older style TV, the Switch compatible only by means of a converter. Dad helped me set it up, and watched me play.
Better than expected. Top notch graphics, fluid animation, and a surprising amount of stuff to do. I helped clip Helga Hamster's customers at her hair salon, made bottles at Ferdinand Frog's Factory, went to the bowling alley, competed for the Olympics at Portia Poodle's Public Pool. Hours went by without me noticing.
Also escaping my notice: Dad seating himself on my bed, furiously scribbling into a memo pad. You see, the game also featured four digit numbers. You could dial them from within the game, but yeah, I don't know...
When dad's cheese appeared to slip a bit further, I forced myself not to notice him. It didn't quite work.
"I know this is yours now," he said to me. "But do you care if I make a call?"
At first I shrugged. He could have tossed that old thing in a dumpster for all I cared. But then my eyebrows raised when I came to the sudden realization that he had just asked to borrow a toy phone like he were expecting a business call.
Figuring he just wanted to make me interested in the toy, I tried tuning him out again. It kinda worked. The Bobby Buck's Bus Depot segment was pretty entertaining.
Dad punched in a number, paused a realistic amount of time. "Hey. Cherie. It's me! Please don't hang up. I know I'm not supposed to call any of you guys anymore, but I miss you. My wife, she doesn't understand...hello?"
I guess they hung up, because he started typing another fake number. "Louie!...Wait, dammit, would you listen a second? I have a son! He's old enough, but he doesn't understand. He only cares about video games. Yes, I know yours is one of them, but I don't think he gets it. Could you talk to him, please?"
I rolled my eyes, maneuvering the goose into a city dump to complete another quest objective.
"Okay, I'll give it to him."
The next moment, I had a red plastic receiver pressed to my ear. "Googly Goose is on the loose!" is all it said. "Honk honk!"
"Stephen," my mother called from the doorway. "Could you...come out here?"
The two disappeared around the corner, voices dropping low so I couldn't hear. Mostly.
They got into a heated argument about something, dad yelling about childhoods, deprived generations, and life being so cruel, and mother...I don't know, but she was crying a lot.
When I heard him yelling about Googly Goose and the phone, the police showed up a few minutes later.
I never saw dad again. I've heard rumors about him going to a mental institution for awhile, then living under a bridge. Most recently, something about him working as a security guard in a mom and pop hardware store.
That night, the night the police came, he tried to take the phone, the one allegedly my gift for my birthday, but they didn't let him.
"Take care of it, David!" dad shouted as he got dragged, handcuffed, past my bedroom door. "They talk back to you!"
I don't know how I slept that night. I guess I just kept playing my game until I couldn't keep my eyes open. I shut off the set, crawled into bed.
At two in the morning, the phone rang.
The old plastic toy phone.
The one that isn't even designed to receive calls.